The Reproducibility Principle Reconsidered
This post may be more relevant to those who are involved in cross-cultural Christian ministry, but I think it can also apply to those who are seeking to reach those of their own culture with the gospel.
The principle of “reproducibility,” as it is usually presented, states that in missions, we should evangelize, disciple believers, and plant churches in such a way that the methods and practices we are using to do the work can be easily reproduced by those within the culture we are trying to reach.
Usually the focus falls on the methods and practices that we employ in ministry. For example…
A mission is trying to reach a people group that is primarily poor, unskilled laborers, so they decide to build a first-class hospital where the people can come to get medical care that is not normally available to them. The patients experience the love of Christ through the Christian doctors and nurses, hear the gospel proclaimed and become believers. Discipleship classes are hosted at the hospital’s excellent facilities and hundreds if not thousands of people’s lives are touched every year.
Hospitals are a wonderful means of spreading the gospel and have been used by the Lord with great results through the years. But this is not a reproducible method. In other words, the poor, unskilled laborers reached through the hospital are not able to take this same method and use it to reach others. They have no medical expertise. They have no resources to build excellent facilities. It is a good method, but it is not reproducible.
An example of a reproducible method, on the other hand, might be Evangelism Explosion. I was trained in E.E. as a young pastor and was very impressed at the potential this method had to unleash an ever-increasing number of evangelists. an E.E. trainer takes two others under his wing and teaches them a short, memorized presentation of the gospel that they can use to share with others. Once they are trained, each of them can then train two others, who in turn then each train two others… and on it goes with a multiplication effect that essentially is limitless. It doesn’t cost anything, it is simple, and within the North American culture it was designed for, it is very reproducible.
These are examples of the reproduciblity principle as it is normally understood by missiologists. But here is the important “reconsideration” of reproducibility that I am proposing:
The power of reproducibility lies not in the ministry methods or practices used, but in the divine life that is at work in God’s people as the kingdom of God grows.
We cross-cultural workers who are seeking a reproducing movement that is constantly producing new believers and new churches must never forget this. While it is certainly not wrong to apply the reproducibility principle to methods and practices, we must realize that methods and practices and strategies and tools in and of themselves are not capable of containing and generating divine life.
It is God’s divine life that reproduces itself in the lives of people and is spreading to fill the whole world with his glory. This is why Paul so often refers to the Church as the Body of Christ that is growing and pulsing with Jesus’ divine life
“Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.”
In Colossians 2:19 we are told to hold fast to…
“…the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.”
Could it be that in our attempt to discover and perfect reproducible methods we sometimes cut ourselves off from the power of this divine life that God has provided to give us fruit in our evangelistic, discipleship and church planting efforts? By trying to find just the right reproducible method, we unintentionally blind ourselves to the need to seek the life that is in Jesus himself and that is able to generate incredible growth and fruit as it flows through whatever method or practice God in his wisdom and sovereignty chooses to bless.
I realize that the reproducibility principle as it is applied to methods and practices does not exclude a dependance on the power of the Holy Spirit working in and through believers who are filled with him and living in the power of his life, but I think we need to remind ourselves that God is under no obligation to bless whatever methods and practices seem most reproducible to us. He may very well choose to bypass them and to work in a way that is counter-intuitive to us just to show the greatness of the power of his life as it flows in his body.
1 Corinthians 1:27
But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;
I have observed God’s power and divine life flowing through methods and practices that were very far from being “reproducible”, and I have also observed many excellent and reproducible methods and practices that just were not producing fruit. The lesson to be learned is NOT that it is wrong to ask God to show us methods and practices that are able to be used by the people we are trying to reach, but to think that these in and of themselves are sufficient to bring about the multiplication that we desire to see.
As divine life is passed from those Christian doctors and nurses to the patients whose lives they touch, reproduction takes place and the Kingdom of God grows. God can use a very un-reproducible method to grow his church.
On the other hand, if E.E. is seen as being “the answer” to reaching people with the gospel and is taught simply as words to be spoken and passed on to others, a very reproducible method will have no power at all to make any eternal difference in the life of a single person.
- So is it wrong to get excited about promising new methods or practices? Absolutely not! They may very well be God’s good gifts to us to enable us to do his work in the power of the Holy Spirit.
- Is it wrong to evaluate methods and practices on the basis of their capacity to be reproduced by the people we are trying to reach? Absolutely not! The desire to use reproducible methods springs from a desire that the power of God be glorified. When God chooses to use a world-class hospital, it can be tempting to say that it was the hospital that brought about the conversions, but when God uses simple, reproducible practices, it is usually more apparent that it is his power that produced the fruit.
- Is it wrong to use non-reproducible methods? Not if we receive specific instructions from “the Head” to do so. I would not stand in the way of any Christian worker or organization who is following what they believe to the clear leading of the Holy Spirit. The trick is to make sure that we are hearing from him and not depending on fleshly resources to do spiritual work.
Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts.